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ON March 10, 2010, the Zambia High Commission in Pretoria, received a fax message from the authorities at Themba Hospital, located in a little South African town called Kabokweni, some 17km north of Nelspruit (now Mbomela), the provincial capital of Mpumalanga Province. They had a patient called Mr Joel Essau Tembe, reportedly born in 1914, whom they had been looking after since 2003..

According to hospital authorities, the man had been sick then  and was brought to the hospital for treatment by an unidentified  person. Apparently, the “Good Samaritan” just dumped him there and disappeared, never to return.

So as the situation stood at that moment, nobody knew where the old man stayed before coming to the hospital because he had lost his memory due to old age.

However, the “Good Samaritan” had mentioned something to the hospital authorities at the time to the effect that the old man originally came from Zambia.

This was what prompted the hospital to write to the Zambia High Commission in Pretoria to help in identifying the old man, who was then being taken care of in Ward 8 by social welfare officers.

Physically, the old man looked well fed except for the usual complaints of body pains associated with persons of his age.

These are the details of the fax (left in Mr Tembe’s file by the  unidentified person) to help the Mission  in identifying the old man:

Name: Joel Essau Tembe

Place of Birth: Zambia

Town: Chikoda

Area: Mbedawuke

River: Mesina

Chief: Leornard Kaunda



Grandmother: Msamba

Mother: Melita

Father: Mbebe Tembe

Wife: Nomia Mvula

Children: Elizabeth and Evans Mdhlovu


Brothers and sisters:

Kangetjembe Mdhlovu/Zibani Mdhlovu..

The High Commissioner, Mr Leslie Mbula, instructed me to investigate the case.

On the whole, these details were not helpful. In fact, they did not seem to make sense. For example, the surname “Tembe” appeared unZambian but we took it that it might have been a  misnomer  for “Tembo;”  the reference to “Mbedawuke” a misnomer for “Petauke” town  and “Mdhlovu” a misnomer for “Ndhlovu.”  We could not place “Chikoda” anywhere; there is no river in Zambia called Mesina (we knew a South African border town called Mussina!) and there was no chief in Zambia called Leonard Kaunda but we knew that Kaunda was a common surname in Lundazi or northern part of Malawi.

However, from the scanty information made available to us, we deduced that the man could have come  from the Eastern Province, in which case, if he was truly a Zambian,  he should be able to communicate in either Nyanja or Tumbuka, which languages I was  conversant with.

Our hope was that a face to face interview would enable us to extract more information from the old man which would help us trace his relatives in Z|ambia. But this, unfortunately, was not to be.

Upon arrival at Themba Hospital, I was received by a young social worker called Faith Zulu. She looked very happy to see me, obviously hoping that, at long last, Tembe would be reunited with his family  in Zambia.

She immediately took me to Ward 8 and pointed at an old man lying fast asleep on his bed. I expected to find a thin, frail-looking old man with sunken eyes but he was the opposite: fat and healthy and sporting a white beard.

After he was roused from his sleep, Faith and the old man first communicated to each other in a local language called Swati. Thereafter, I was asked to interview him in a Zambian language. Using a mixture of Nyanja and Tumbuka, I introduced myself and asked Tembe to tell me who he was and when he came to South Africa. I also wanted to know about his chief and village in Zambia.

I might well have been talking Greek to him. It was clear that the old man didn’t understand what I was talking about and kept communicating with the social worker in Swati.  Faith told me the old man was complaining of body pains and that he wanted some medicine!

All attempts to enlist useful information from the old man proved futile, so I had to leave, feeling frustrated.

On the basis of the interview I had with the old man and his failure to provide useful information that would have enabled us to establish his true identity, I felt that this was not a matter the Zambia High Commission should expend any further resources on.   In the circumstances, I recommended that  it should be treated as a closed case for the Mission.

A year earlier, the High Commissioner had also instructed me to deal with a similar case except that this one had a happy ending. Sometime in July, 2009,  I received a telephone call from  a South African “Good Samaritan,” a  Mr Norman Ngwenya,  to the effect that he was looking after an 88-year-old Zambian neighbour, Mr Dillion Phiri, who was sick and in need of relatives to take care of him.

Mr Ngwenya, who said he was calling from  eTwatwa Township, about  20km east of Johannesburg, said he had known Mr Phiri as a single person without known children for many years. According to him, Mr Phiri was born on December 10, 1921, and last entered South Africa on July 8, 1985. His next of kin were listed as follows:

  1. Mr Phillimon Phiri, of Nyamungu Village, Chief Nyanje, Sinda, in the Eastern Province.
  2. Mr J.J. Phiri, of House No. 4277B, Matero, Lusaka.

I was attracted by the second contact address since it appeared Mr J.J. Phiri might have been our neighbour because my parents’ house where I grew up happened to be  in the same location in the late 1960’s. Our house number was 4300A, which meant that House No. 4277B was not far off.

As per diplomatic protocol, upon receipt of this information, I informed my High Commissioner, Mr Mbula, about the call and he authorised me to make a follow up. Thus, on Saturday, August 8, 2009, I went to visit Mr Phiri in eTwatwa Township. Mr Ngwenya had provided me with details of how to get to the place.

I discovered that the old man had taken up South African citizenship which enabled him to live in the country as a legal immigrant.

The old man, who lived in his own house,  looked quite frail and had lost some memory.  He could move only slightly due to rheumatic pains in the legs. In fact, his condition was such that he needed a wheelchair to move around. He was fluent both in his mother tongue Chichewa and the South African language Zulu.

According to him, he initially came to South Africa in 1945 and visited an independent Zambia for the first time in July, 1985. He remembered visiting a policeman nephew called Mr Mwanza on the Copperbelt. Later, he returned to South Africa and was not to be heard of again until July that year when Mr Ngwenya called the Mission for assistance.

Initially, Mr Phiri told me that much as he would love to return home, he did not think that he could manage do so in his present condition. In any case, as a South African citizen, albeit by registration, he was entitled to a pension which he had been receiving since leaving employment “many years ago.” Should he return to Zambia, he would automatically lose this pension.

He would have preferred that a relative came from Zambia to live with him in South Africa since he was virtually alone at that moment. A family of the Magayas was then  living with him to keep him company.

Mr Magaya was a Zimbabwean who lived in Zambia for 30 years before returning home and later migrating to South Africa. He was married to a Zambian woman from Eastern Province.

When it was explained to him that it was not possible for any relative in Zambia to live with him permanently because of immigration bottlenecks, Mr Phiri said he wouldn’t mind if such relatives visited him regularly. He was only concerned that should anything happen to him, fake relatives might appear from nowhere and descend on his estate.He said that he would sponsor one relative to visit him in South Africa so that he would see the situation for himself.  He promised to pay for the relative’s passport as well as sponsor his travel costs to and from South Africa.

Already, there were reports from Mr Phiri’s neighbours that a Swaziland-based woman claiming to be the old man’s granddaughter arrived at the old man’s home the following day (Sunday, August 9, 2009) for the purpose of changing the old man’s title deeds into her name. According to the neighbours, the woman concerned had been collecting money from the old man over a period of time and yet she had not done anything to support him.

It had been arranged that the old man would bring the money (R3, 000) to the Zambia High Commission in Pretoria for onward transmission to which ever relative was coming to see him.

The story had a happy ending in that the Mission, acting in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Lusaka, eventually traced Mr Phiri’s relatives in Zambia. Two of them, a Mr Mwanza, a former policeman from Nyamungu Village in Sinda, and a Mr Phiri, based in Lusaka,  came over to South Africa, at the old man’s expense,  and identified him  as their long lost uncle.

When it was explained to him that relatives could not afford to be coming to nurse him from Zambia due to financial constraints, the old man agreed to accompany them back to Zambia.  A few days later, Mr Mwanza called to inform me that he and the old man had arrived safely at Nyamungu Village and that the family was profoundly grateful to the Pretoria Mission for the assistance.

Meanwhile, the old man’s houses were put on rent with instructions that the money raised would be transferred into a Zambian  bank account of one of the family members….

The author is a Lusaka-based media consultant, recipient of the 1978 Best News Reporter of the Year and a former

vdiplomat in South Africa and Botswana. For comments, sms 0977425827/0967146485 or email:








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